Embracing the Mobile Learning Frontier

Conferences, Mobile Strategy Comments (1)

During the week of June 20, over 600 learning professionals descended on sunny San Jose to attend mLearnCon, the premier mobile learning conference in the United States. It is a robust four days of presentations, demonstrations, discussions and networking all about the emerging field of mobile learning.

It was very obvious at the conference that so many companies are still trying to find their way in the mLearning wilderness. It is as if there are many groups of explorers all poised to venture out into unknown lands with a fear of unexpected perils lurking around every next bend in the trail.

With that being said, it is understandable that there is much trepidation in the learning community. Questions from the explorers abound such as, “What if we don’t reach our destination?”, “What if we have the wrong tools and weapons to survive?” or “What if the members of our group don’t like our new destination or want to go somewhere else or, even worse, go back to where we came from?” All of these kinds of questions and concerns are enough to make the whole journey be called off and send all of the would-be explorers back to the comfort and security of their own homes; back to the safe surroundings of eLearning.

I am happy to report that it didn’t appear that anyone at mLearnCon was advocating the abandonment of mobile learning and a return to the comfort of eLearning and ILT. After all, it was brought up by more than one speaker, including myself, that mLearning is already making great strides in training and development and that it is quickly going to become more prevalent. It is very safe to say that mobile learning cannot be ignored or even avoided. For companies and organizations that need to teach and train their employees, those learners are going to expect and even ask for information critical to their job to be delivered over mobile devices. So, setting out on the journey is inevitable, even necessary, and it should be seen as a challenge and a tremendous opportunity to train your learners in a new and powerful way and equip them to be more effective.

The good news for all intrepid travelers on the mobile learning journey is that the trail is not as dangerous as might be expected and the skills and wisdom needed to successfully implement an mLearning initiative is not as overwhelming as may be feared.  Let’s take a look at some of the concerns that were shared at mLearnCon and the responses to those concerns.

Flash doesn’t work on the iPad. This comment was heard numerous times throughout the conference. It’s usually expressed by someone who has a wealth of existing eLearning that is developed in Flash. The basis of the concern can be a legitimate one. That’s a lot of content that may have to go through a difficult process to be converted for mobile. It’s important to remember that not all eLearning is appropriate for the mobile learning platform. The content will most likely need to undergo new instructional and interactive design to be effective in a mobile context and that is only if it is appropriate for mobile . That means opening your eLearning course and wishing for a “Save As Mobile Application” menu option should not be a consideration as to whether or not you decide to venture into mobile learning. It’s very important to assess your existing eLearning and determine if it is applicable to your audience’s learning goals if it is delivered on a mobile device. So, don’t focus on the Flash, focus on the content and what is best for your learner. As learning professionals we have had to deal with technological change many times in the past. How many of you gave up eLearning development when Authorware faded into the sunset? Also look for the Apple-Adobe feud to be resolved in the near future either by compromise or conversion solutions. Both companies are driven to build a bridge between the two to make their customers happy. There is precedence for Apple to change their position. Just ask iPhone users on the Verizon network. The Adobe Flash iOS packager has made great strides recently, who knows what is ahead?

Mobile learning is too expensive. If the money is too tight then it is time to consider a prototype or a proof of concept. In fact, Float frequently recommends a prototype approach even when there is enough monies to build a full application. A prototype has so many advantages. The entire effort is smaller so it is easier to control. You are guaranteed to make mistakes in your initial effort so they will be made on a smaller scale with less implication. Your stakeholders will get a focused experience of mobile learning within the context of your enterprise and not be distracted by lots of choices and variables that a full-blown app might bring. With a prototype you can repurpose existing assets and other content from your eLearning or ILT. Because this is a proof of concept, you will be operating under the “testing” umbrella, so your goals will be focused on the delivery of the content and not so much the effectiveness of the training content. As mobile learning becomes more prevalent, it will be interesting to see if it is truly more expensive than eLearning. Consider a prototype that will keep your costs down for the initial effort. A prototype will also force you to develop a mobile learning development process and that will give you insight on the variables that will affect your budget, scope and timeline. Building a prototype is like sending a scout into the wilderness first. Once the scout returns and describes the “lay of the land,” in other words, describes many of the variables that can be expected in an mLearning effort, the rest of the group can go out into the wilderness with confidence and realistic expectations.

Performance support is not learning. There is no doubt that mobile learning is causing us to change our perspective on learning. It may even give us pause to revisit our definition of learning. No longer is our audience tethered to the desktop or sanctioned to a classroom to learn information. When built correctly, performance support mobile learning is information that results in your learners doing their job more effectively. It is learning at the time of need that can have positive results such as increased productivity, better customer service and a safer work environment. If you have ever had the challenge of teaching a child how to ride a bike, you have experienced “just in time” learning. For some time you will run alongside holding up the bike and giving instructions on how to correctly ride, steer and balance. Eventually, you will hold on less and less and finally let the rider go on their own while trying to keep the wipeouts to a minimum. This approach is certainly more effective than having the child read a manual on safe bike riding and then sending them out on their own. Performance support on a mobile device is definitely learning and it could become one of the most powerful learning methods you employ. Embrace this new avenue to reach your learners.

Hopefully now mobile learning is looking a little less like a vast uncharted wilderness after reading this, and in particular if you attended mLearnCon. Maybe you have a higher level of confidence in stepping out and taking on the challenges you may encounter. This is not to say that mLearning implementation in your organization won’t be difficult at times and you won’t confront obstacles but the benefits and rewards can be very high when you choose to lead your learners to undiscovered destinations in the new frontier of mobile learning. Besides, you’ll look good in a coonskin cap!

Do you have any reservations or concerns about implementing mobile learning? We’d like to hear them so feel free to share them in the comments.

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Scott McCormick is a founding partner of Float. Building on more than 30 years of experience in training, eLearning, and mLearning efforts for Fortune 500 companies, Scott helps companies embrace new learning strategies and deliver results. Scott is in charge of client relationships with global leaders in healthcare, manufacturing, hospitality, and insurance, and is instrumental in building new business and contributing to Float’s thought leadership efforts. Scott is featured in Float’s latest book, “Mastering Mobile Learning,” available from Wiley and ASTD Press.

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On June 30, 2011
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One Response to Embracing the Mobile Learning Frontier

  1. […] followed that up with interviews from mLearnCon 2011 in San Jose, held June 21-23, as well as a thoughtful blog post by Scott McCormick on some of the sessions from the conference. Finally, they have developed two mobile apps, including […]

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